Return to the swamp of AIDS statistics

Rian Malan writes on why he questioned Zuma's mistaken mortality figures

I was driving through the Karoo on October 29 when State President Zuma came onto RSG, talking about how South Africa was finally going to get Aids under the knee and moerit. Excellent speech until Zuma came to the bit where he explained why the war against this disease now had to be tackled with utmost urgency.  Aids, said he, had caused a dumbfounding 32 percent surge in registered deaths in 2008, with 183,000 more South Africans dying than in the year before.  I was so shaken I nearly crashed the car.

You must understand that I have a lot at stake here.  Nine years ago, an American magazine offered me a small fortune to write the inside story of president Thabo Mbeki's descent into Aids madness.  I schemed the easiest way to demonstrate Mbeki's stupidity was to confirm claims regarding our Aids death rate, then supposedly running at 250,000 a year. But the more I looked at that number, the shakier it seemed. A quarter million deaths was more deaths in a single year than every war we South Africans ever fought amongst ourselves and against foreigners.  The only evidence of catastrophe on that scale was to be found in the computer-modelled estimates put out by the Aids industry.

I wasn't exactly pleased by this discovery, because it ruined my story, but what can you do?  I wound up writing a series of articles questioning the accuracy of Aids estimates everywhere in Africa, thereby earning myself a global harvest of hatred and ridicule. Like Mbeki before me, I got savaged so badly by the massed Aids activists that I eventually had to quit the battlefield and seek refuge in Boeremusiek. 

In time, however, the tide turned. After 2000, South African researchers quietly eased the United Nations out of the picture, replacing their hysterical estimates with numbers that were far more credible. Elsewhere in Africa, scientists and journalists took a closer look at some of the issues I'd raised, often with startling results. The Washington Post reported that Rwanda - once held to be ‘the fountain of death' in the global Aids pandemic - had never been stricken by deaths on the predicted scale. The Lancet found that Uganda's miraculous victories in the war on Aids were largely a myth created by activists eager to show at least one success for the billions spent on Aids prevention.  The British Medical Journal reported that Aids was responsible for as little as three percent of global mortality, yet was receiving 25 percent of the funding. ‘Billions are being wasted," said the BMJ, sounding just like me five years earlier.

Emboldened by these developments, I decided to include my Aids heresies in a new book, along with a postscript saying, hey, check this, I am not after all a lone madman. Then on the very eve of publication, Zuma came out with those shocking numbers - a mortality surge of 32 percent in a single year! It looked as though the Aids apocalypse so long predicted had finally arrived, and that I'd just made a huge fool of myself.

But experience has taught me to be sceptical of Aids claims. The more I looked at Zuma's number, the more dubious it seemed. Aids researchers don't talk to me, but the handful willing to play Deep Throat agreed entirely. I mean, check the data on StatsSA's website. All available evidence shows that our death rate started stabilizing after the widespread introduction of ARVS, and is now showing a slight decline. None of the experts knew where Zuma's number came from, but they all believed it was a mistake that would soon be rectified. Not so. Zuma's speech made headlines around the world.  A week later, there were more headlines when Health Minister Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi repeated the horror statistic. Still no reaction from the Aids industry.

After weeks of silence I stripped my moer and decided to alert journalists to what was going on. My mother, aged 85, fell to her knees and begged me not to get involved, because she'd seen her little boy previously set upon by mobs of maddened Aids bwanas. I said, but ma, this is terribly important. Even as we speak, foreign donors are eyeing Zuma's number and wondering what to do about it. If I shut up they're going to panic and pump even more money into Aids, and I'm not sure we really need that.

Mother was not convinced, but I went ahead, sending out an open letter (see here) quoting Dr. Debbie Bradshaw of the MRC on the most likely cause of Zuma's error: someone in the presidency, she said, must have accidentally transposed a digit, causing around 576,000 registered deaths to come out as 756,000. Newspapers picked up the story, and by the end of the week, there was a helse herrie underway, with most Aids experts, very oddly, siding with me: Zuma's number just had to be wrong.

But was it?  The Department of Home Affairs, which provided Zuma with this numbers, insisted there was no mistake, and by the week's end, I was thinking they might just have a point. But the cause of last year's surge could not possibly have been Aids.  It could, however, have been fraud. Earlier this year, Home Affairs asked all South Africans to contact a special call centre and verify that they still existed. This bizarre appeal was apparently necessitated by a growing form of fraud - the issuance of blank death certificates to criminals who use them to make false insurance claims on behalf of living citizens.

Could this practice be so widespread as to account for 183,000 false death registrations last year? Nobody knows, and Zuma's cabinet has just announced that it is going to leave it up to Stats SA to settle this matter. This means it will be at least a year before we achieve clarity.

Meanwhile, all I can say is, keep your head, and don't trust anything the Aids bwanas say - especially not Nathan Geffen of TAC. Earlier this week, he informed the world that Zuma's mistake "was of little consequence," because other data showed that SA's death rate has doubled since l997. Hmmm. It is true that annual death registrations rose from 316,000 in 1997 to around 600,000 in 2007, but it is absurd to claim, as Geffen did, that this was almost entirely the result of Aids.

Over the same period, completeness of registration rose from around 67 percent to 81 percent, according to Stats SA, while our population rose by close on seven million. If you adjust the raw numbers accordingly, Geffen's apparent doubling shrinks to an increase of around 15 to 20 percent.

That falls way short of the apocalypse prophesied by the Aids bwanas, but it remains a huge tragedy. Mynsinsiens, we should just ignore those who try to manipulate us with numbers and support Zuma's common-sense plan to stamp out the disease.  Anything else will lead to a national epidemic of madness.

Correction: I am informed that my mathematical skills leave much to be desired. If you run the numbers in the penultimate paragraph correctly, the real increase in SA death registrations since l997 comes out at around 30 percent - still a tragedy by any reckoning, but still way short of the doubling claimed by Geffen.

This article (uncorrected) was first published in Rapport, November 22 2009

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